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B.C. Justice Minister to face hard questions on civil-forfeiture law

Attorney General & Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton, seen in Vancouver in December, may be under fire in connection with B.C.’s civil-forfeiture process.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

At least three members of B.C. Premier Christy Clark's caucus want to take a second look at the province's civil-forfeiture law in light of concerns about its fairness and transparency. That sets up Suzanne Anton for some tough questions at Tuesday's B.C. Liberal caucus meeting, after the Justice Minister's refusal to review the profitable program.

Few MLAs responded to interview requests after internal "talking points" on the issue were distributed by caucus support staff. However, three MLAs told The Globe and Mail that the province should be open to looking at the law to determine if it is performing as expected, while a fourth MLA supported Ms. Anton's position.

Ms. Anton last week dismissed concerns about the program that has expanded beyond the original promise of targeting the proceeds of organized crime. Under the asset-seizure law, the Civil Forfeiture Office can confiscate property deemed to be the proceeds of unlawful activity. Since the office opened in 2006, it has collected $41-million – outpacing Ontario's civil-forfeiture program. The B.C. law does not require criminal charges or a conviction.

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Gordon Hogg, the MLA for Surrey-White Rock and former Liberal caucus chair, said he expects the matter will be raised at the caucus meeting, where MLAs will be preparing for the legislative session that begins Feb. 11.

The law was billed as a tool to fight organized crime, but a months-long Globe and Mail investigation has found it has a wider reach.

"As a principle, I don't have a problem with civil forfeiture," Mr. Hogg said in an interview. "If some of the legislative framework around it has to change, then we should take a look at it. … There have been some questions about the constitutionality of the law. We have to answer that. I don't think we can hide our heads in the sand."

Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan (West Vancouver-Capilano) said he was initially supportive of the legislation. "I thought we were going after bikers," he said in an interview Monday.

However, Mr. Sultan raised concerns after a constituent came to him worried that she was about to lose her home – even though she had been acquitted. Mumtaz Ladha was charged with human trafficking and the Civil Forfeiture Office sought to seize her multimillion-dollar home on the grounds that she may have violated the Employment Standards Act.

"She was panicking that the machinery to seize of her house wasn't slowing down even though the case [ended withouth conviction]. So a lot of us wrote letters to the attorney-general, and the civil-forfeiture proceeding was stopped," Mr. Sultan said.

He said it is an example of why the law ought to be reviewed. "I think any time the provincial government moves into applying civil remedies to criminal cases, it warrants oversight and review," he said. "By all means, we should take a second look at it."

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Ms. Anton issued a statement last week rejecting calls for a review. "I am confident in the work being done by the Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO), which is precisely what it was set out to do when it began in 2006 so there is no need for a review."

B.C. Ombudsperson Kim Carter is asking members of the public to come forward with concerns, noting she has the power to conduct a review. Ms. Carter said last week there is a "high level of public concern about the fairness" of the province's increasingly controversial seizures of property deemed to be proceeds of crime.

Liberal MLA Moira Stilwell (Vancouver-Langara) said she would like to see the Ombudsperson look into those concerns.

"It's completely within the role of the Ombudsperson. That's part of her role to be that double-check, to see how laws are working. I think we should all hear about it," she said. "It's procedural hygiene that should be going on all the time."

However Mike Morris, the MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie and a former RCMP officer, said there are far greater priorities for the government than revisiting this law.

"The Civil Forfeiture Office follows the rules and I do have faith in that," he said. "If someone has been treated in a bad way or the evidence wasn't there, the courts can step in. There are safeguards built in." He added that the government has more important matters to focus on. "We have a whole bunch on things that will take priority over this."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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